Ayre AX-7 Power Amp Reviewed

Published On: January 4, 2009
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Ayre AX-7 Power Amp Reviewed

Packed with a George Cardas burn-in disc, this Ayre AX-7 power amp is what audiophile dreams are made of. With American craftsmanship and the heart and soul of founder, Charles Hansen, behind the product its the kind of gear that makes Ken Kessler want to learn to love America all over again.

Ayre AX-7 Power Amp Reviewed

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Magazines - let alone journalists - are accused with much regularity of concentrating on a handful of brands while ignoring others. The reasons are manifold, not least being space limitations: if magazines gave coverage according to proportional representation, Hi-Fi News would need six whole issues just to review, say, Sony's two-channel products. But, mea culpa, I really have no excuse for failing to grab something - anything - from Ayre, beyond my monthly review allocation of only two products.

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• Read more stereo amplifier reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find an AV receiver to pair with the amplifier.

Alas, Ayre is one of those 'quiet' brands. It doesn't shout, doesn't court controversy, doesn't play the pity card, doesn't bully nor spin tales of bull. Thus, it joins a host of brands who simply carry on with their business - think Copland, VTL, Rogue Audio, Lamm, Bel Canto and dozens more - manufacturers free of drama, politics, hype. So we, the press, have to be approached. Or we simply forget.

Which is unfair to Ayre, I admit. The company's head cheese, Charles Hansen, is well-respected, down-to-earth and so far removed from the snake-oil merchants who populate the high-end that I should have been drawn to him years ago. Here's a guy who knows his science, eschews fashion-for-the-sake-of-it, yet has the baitsim to admit unapologetically that, say, George Cardas' burn-in disc and myrtle wood feet '...seem to work, but I'm damned if I know why.'

So, two things make me predisposed to like the Ayre AX-7 integrated amplifier. The first is that it's an achingly honest product. The second is that I got on with Charles, and that - as regular readers know - is a crucial part of judging a product if you believe, as I most certainly do, that the soul of the manufacturer is in the product.

Hansen has mixed conservative, minimalist styling with some novel features and details, so you don't feel short-changed. And though an American brand, the products have a very Euro feel to them. The AX-7 is so cleanly attired that you could almost mistake it for a power-amp rather than an integrated unit. No knobs, just eight Pez-sized buttons and a display; it shares a front panel with the matching CX-7 CD player. Measuring only 17 1/4x13 3/4x4 3/4in (WDH), it's no burden on your real estate. But for all that, you don't go wanting.

To show its seriousness, for example, the AX-7 offers two pairs of balanced inputs and two pairs of unbalanced inputs, the former made via three-pin XLR connectors. There are still those who think that balanced operation offers nothing for the domestic audio user, but any Ayre retailer can quickly prove otherwise: the sonic superiority is not hard to grasp. (As an aside, even if balanced made no difference, can ANYONE argue that an XLR connector isn't superior to a crappy, past-its-prime phono plug???) In addition to fully-balanced circuitry, Ayre is also an exponent of zero feedback.

Ayre employs FET switches in the AX-7's input selector circuitry because the company feels that FETs 'offer transparent, noise-free switching, with no moving parts.' They're also honest enough to warn the user that source components with too great an output level (exceeding either 4V RMS unbalanced with 40kOhm input impedance, or 8V RMS balanced with 20 kOhm input impedance) can overload the inputs and cause distortion. With the FET switches, 'both the signal and ground connections to each source component are switched, so that any un-selected components are completely disconnected from the system. This avoids any problems with undesired ground loops.' Needless to say, the AX-7 made no unwanted noises.

Build quality is hard to fault, and the unit operated flawlessly, thanks in no small part, I'm sure, to a sophisticated microprocessor serving as the Ayre's control system. Ayre states that, 'This microprocessor is normally "asleep" and all digital systems are turned off, including the master clock. When the microprocessor receives a command, either from the front panel or the remote control, it "wakes up" to execute the command, and then immediately returns to "sleep" mode. This system ensures noise-free reproduction of music signals.'

As that paragraph reveals, the AX-7 comes with a remote control (an all-metal 'luxury' alternative to the standard plastic device is available for extra outlay), but the coolest detail is the 66-step volume control. It's accessed at the amplifier not by a knob or buttons, but by touching the black bar above the front panel display. Neat, eh? Volume adjustments occur through FET switches combined with discrete metal-film resistors, 'to create a volume control with crystal-clear transparency and no moving parts, along with digital accuracy and repeatability.' Those 66 steps give you 1.0 dB increments, which I found just about right, though I'm sure one or two of you with bat-like hearing will deem them too coarse.

Read more about the Ayre AX-7 on Page 2.

When the unit is first connected to the mains, the volume level defaults to '11', which surely attests to Hansen's love for the film, This Is Spinal Tap. However, most un-Spinal Tap-like, '11' in this case is a rather low, and therefore safe setting. After that, the current volume setting is retained in memory, and will remain constant when changing inputs or when the unit is placed in standby.

You will find yourself poring over the owner's manual because, despite the seeming clarity of the design, Ayre has opted for its own techniques in labelling and operation. Ayre believes, for example, that, 'In this modern era of diverse source components, it has become impractical to pre-label the inputs with the actual name of the source. Instead, the AX-7 has simple alpha-numeric labels that allow you to easily remember the selector button associated with each source component.' Hah! The icons meant squat: a Saturn-like planet, a five-pointed star, a crescent moon - methinks some poor putz obsessed with astrology was let loose on the buttons. It's up to you to remember what source you put in the crescent input, the star input, etc. And I'm shocked there was no Mogen Dovid.

Then again, there is a rather nice display to assist you, and you can turn it off entirely if you're of the school that deems that preferable. When commands are received, either from the front-panel buttons or the remote control, the display activates for a few seconds to confirm the command, and then turns off automatically. Pressing the display button again will illuminate it once more.

In addition to the aforementioned single-ended and balanced line inputs, there's output to feed to a tape deck, with proper buffering to prevent any nasties when monitoring or playing back tapes. And don't let the description of 'four line sources/integrated amp' lull you into thinking it's a bare bones design. Ayre is very much attuned to the need to assimilate with custom installations or home cinemas, so the AX-7 also features a complex 'Processor Pass-Through' capability. Thus you can incorporate the AX-7 into a complicated multi-channel set-up and still enjoy untrammelled, purist stereo.

Along with the sockets on the back and an IEC three-pin AC mains input are some of the best speaker terminals I've encountered. Cardas-designed, they only accept spade connectors, but you can tighten them up with ease, as a large, single knob presses a crossbar down on the spade connectors. Simple, but very effective.

Given a price of $3,500 USD and power ratings specified as 60W/ch into 8 ohms or 120W/ch into 4 ohms, the Ayre was a natural for a bunch of speakers to hand, including LS3/5As, the PMC DB1+ and - just about - the Sonus Faber Guarneri, the latter being hungrier than its specs suggest. But the real treat was the ease with which the Ayre drove the Wilson WATT Puppy System 7 to acceptable levels. It's not a combination I would recommend, and deep bass from Barry White recordings (no, not his voice, but his bass player) or crescendos from the magnificently-recorded Jackie Gleason bachelor pad LPs would reveal its limits, but that's neither here nor there. I cite it only to indicate that the Ayre is not fragile, candy-ass toy, incapable of dealing with tough loads.

What it loved were the PMC DB1+, which I realize only cost 625. But believe me when I tell you they sound like a 2000 speaker, and did not limit the Ayre's recital. Better still, the amp wasn't shamed by the LS3/5A, which we all know is a law unto itself. Fed by the Marantz CD-12 CD player and the SME/Koetsu front-end via the EAR 324 phono stage, with Transparent Reference wiring, it went something like this:

Ayre's AX-7 is unashamedly, unabashedly a modern solid-state amplifier, utterly un-valve-like in any of the usual areas; Hansen clearly has no time for that game, probably believing that you should make tube amps if you want tube sound. The upside is that the Ayre has deliciously controlled bass, very fluid and fast, but less rich than say, that of GRAAF's GM50 or the Audio Research VSi55. The only other really vivid characteristic that may sway you is treble that errs toward the sharp; this was more noticeable with the PMC DB1+ and the WATT Puppy than the LS3/5A.

For some, however, this added 'sparkle' may prove delightful. I noticed it first with a stunning mono recording from the 1950s, the xylophone break in Mickey Katz's 'You Belong To Me' - a mix of terrifying transient speed and percussive attack far more revealing than mere drums. Through the Ayre, the speed was unobstructed, the transients breathtakingly crisp. Valves add a roundness that the Ayre lacks, but also lose a tiny bit of the sheer force of the percussiveness. It's subtle enough to ignore, but it's there if you care to listen for it.

But in the middle, the AX-7 is sweet and natural, voices coming through with plenty of warmth to suggest a human source. The sheer quietness and transparency of the Ayre means that you can hear every nuance, every detail, and Ayre keeps it on the right side of 'hygienic', too. Add to this a very wide and open soundstage, of acceptable rather than dramatic front-to-back depth, and you have a hard-to-fault solution for someone who wants audiophile performance without ludicrous cost, poor perceived value or user-unfriendliness. If that's not clear enough, then consider the Ayre AX-7 as this: a perfect oasis in-between sub- 1500 British integrateds and 3000-plus separates. And if the latter is more your speed, they Ayre can help you there, too.

Additional Resources
• Read more stereo amplifier reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find an AV receiver to pair with the amplifier.

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